I'm a Blessing Not a Burden: Mental Illness and Hope
I'm alive and that’s a blessing.
In the essay, “My Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” recently published at an online site and since taken down, the author states that her friend's death is a blessing since she suffered from what, in her limited opinion, was unremitting mental illness. Hence, her dead friend would have been a lifelong burden on her loved ones (among whom I don’t believe the author was counted). The response, the backlash, has been swift and generally supportive of this fact: as someone suffering from a lifelong mental illness, I shouldn’t kill myself in order to alleviate the burden on my family and friends, among whom are my children (whom I do count as loved ones).
I have Bipolar Disorder. I have often been an immense burden on my family and friends in times of deep suffering. Over five years, I was in and out of the psych ward and inpatient eating disorder treatment programs twenty times. Some might say I was locked up longer than I was free. My children sent me crayoned drawings and visited me in barren community rooms where they tried to get me to smile, tickling my side with their tiny fingers or kissing my cheek. I have been on almost every medication—anti-depressants, antipsychotics, atypical antipsychotics—and none of them worked. I went through twenty-five rounds of electroconvulsive treatment (“electric shock”) that failed to diminish my empty, black depression, but did wipe out ten years of memories, some terrible (waking up in the ER, strapped down, after a deliberate overdose) and some cherished (my children singing, drawing, dancing, whispering to me, growing inside all those years). A priest even performed an exorcism in my little locked room. How hopeless can you get to believe in the power of hokey pokey-demon-be-gone-claptrap?
Most days, I knew exactly how much of a burden I was on family and friends. My ex-husband once told me, “Your misery is exhausting.” Even my long-term therapist dropped me due to my suicidal instability. At the very end, my psychiatrist sat me down in a small, narrow office. Between us on the desk was my file, thick with charts and admissions and diagnoses and medication lists and my failures. “You are too extreme a case,” he said. “You are a hopeless case.”
He didn’t have to tell me this because I already believed in my hopelessness. My arms were covered in scars from decades of self-injury. I’d been trying to die in one way or another—jumping in a frozen lake, overdosing on alcohol and medications, swimming out to sea in the middle of the night, starving myself to the point of heart problems, having to be locked inside of a car while my ex-husband drove around Manhattan for two hours until I fell asleep because I was determined to jump off a bridge, any bridge, and the only way off the island is over a bridge. And passively: hoping to be slammed by a car, to skid off icy roads into trees, and researching how to poison myself via carbon monoxide and a hose and plastic bags over my head.
How could anyone love me like that?
And yet, my family and friends continued to love me through all of the misery and pain. Not all of them because I was a burden and difficult to love having no love to give back, and that’s okay. We meet each other where we are in this life, with our best capacities for love and forgiveness and acceptance at that moment.
I am a blessing. I have come out on the other side because I learned to hope again, to feel joy, to accept the necessary pain that leads to joy. I don’t have to die to be well. I will never, technically, be well: bipolar disorder is maintained but not cured. And the maintenance? Interrogating despair and knowing when I need to be reminded, over and over, by those who see and know me that it will pass. Falling into bliss and rolling around in its ecstasy but knowing when it might be mania, and stepping back. With the love and support of family and friends and my own kick-ass will to live, I am HERE, ALIVE, still have BIPOLAR DISORDER, but I am THRIVING.
I am a blessing, a benediction of grace and hope and impossible possibility. As are you.